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Film

Even an Ordinary Road Can Lead All Too Easily to a Concentration Camp

Alain Resnais’s film 'Night and Fog' exhorts us to watch where we are going.

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A dark night. A moving train’s headlights bounce off the thick veil of fog hanging over the tracks, seemingly impenetrable. It’s a lumbering monstrosity of a freight train, chugging along, spitting grey smoke, its wagon doors barred and bolted from the outside. A luridly-lit high gateway looms, topped by barbed-wire mesh, with two rows of barbed-wire fences backing away at right angles to the gate. The train pulls up near the gate, car doors are thrown open, the prisoners tumble out, dazed, squinting from the light after three lightless days packed like sardines inside  wagons that stank of the sweat of unwashed bodies, urine, human faeces. Leashed guard-dogs snarl at them, sentries, their rifles at the ready, bark orders to keep moving, and the prisoners’ eyes open wide in terror as they light on the hell-gates of Auschwitz.

Is this where the world ends?

I had reached Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (‘Night and Fog’,1956) quite by accident, after having recently emerged from a viewing of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (1985), bruised and drained. It had taken me no fewer than four sittings to plod through Shoah’s nine-and-a-half hours – nine-and-a-half gruelling hours of relentless burrowing through the scalded minds and memories of  many Holocaust survivors, as also through the deadened sensibilities of a number of Nazi apparatchiks who had manned some of Hitler’s death camps.

I wanted to review some more visual and oral history of the Holocaust, but needed to go over stuff which would hopefully be lighter on the stomach. As I ran my eyes through a list of Holocaust documentaries, I chanced upon Nuit et Brouillard. Resnais’s was rather a forbidding name, of course: I had seen his Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L’Annee derniere a’ Marienbad (1961) already and felt a little intimidated by his very cerebral cinematic idiom.

I had also found his fragmented narrative style somewhat disorientating. But then I realised Resnais had first made his name precisely with documentaries/shorts – some of them created around the lives and work of painters, his Oscar-winning Van Gogh (1948) being among the earliest film essays in Van Gogh’s life – winning France’s prestigious Jean Virgo prize twice for two non-feature shorts before he had even entered the world of feature films.

Besides, Night and Fog was an intriguing enough title for a film about one of the bleakest periods in man’s history. Above all, it was all of 31 minutes long, a likely salve for my nerves battered by Shoah’s nine-hour-long pounding. I would quickly be done with watching this really short film and then move on to weightier stuff.

‘First view of camp: It’s another planet!’ A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

So I thought – until I sat down to watch that ‘really short’ film, which hit me between the eyes right away. It was a half-hour I will remember for a long time, a half-hour of historical inquiry coalesced with a quest for memory, while a part of one’s mind kept telling one why we must never forget such a thing as this. Chillingly in this film from 66 years ago, I heard echoes from the here and now, from our present, echoes that began to sound faintly at first, but continued to grow in intensity, until they rose to a crescendo with these imperishable words that come near the film’s end:

“We survey these ruins with a heartfelt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble. We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we have been cured of the plague of the camps. We pretend it was all confined to one country, one point in time. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to the never-ending cries…”

That the voice-over delivers these lines largely in bland, flat tones does not make them any less poignant or unsettling. Suddenly, just-seen visuals of razor-wire fencings setting off scrawny, wasted, barely-human faces lift off from the screen and fix us in a hard, cold stare. Look at us, they seem to say, and ask yourself if you are sure you haven’t turned a blind eye to things that foreshadow such scenes.

To miles and miles of concertina wire penning in men and women and children in the Kashmir valley?

To stinking ghettoes into which impoverished and increasingly disenfranchised Muslims pull back in ever-larger numbers in Assam, Gujarat, Delhi’s outer reaches and elsewhere?

Or to the sight of heavy-duty excavators cheerfully tearing down poor men’s hovels in Delhi, Bhopal, Saharanpur, Lucknow…?

Why pretend the plague had happened somewhere far away in what is now the distant past, when it has caught up with your own neighbourhood already, today? If Night and Fog still packs a punch nearly 70 years after it was made, it manages to do so not least because it holds a mirror to us today.

‘Hell-gate, Auschwitz.’ A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

But let me not get ahead of myself here, lest it be assumed I am suggesting that, in the main, Night and Fog derives its extraordinary visual and emotive power from the uncanny prescience of its tone. The fact is, it is a triumph of the cinema.

Writing for the New Yorker, Richard Brody thought Resnais’s film had ‘changed modern consciousness’. Francois Truffaut, Resnais’s younger contemporary, simply said it was ‘the greatest film ever made’. In the same vein, he added: “Night and Fog is a sublime film about which it is difficult to speak. Any adjective, any aesthetic judgement would be out of place in speaking of this work…”

Remarkably, Nuit et Brouillard was made in 1955, a mere 10 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, when the Holocaust was still a recently unveiled abomination and its hideousness largely unexamined. In fact, Resnais’s film remains one of the first cinematic reflections on the death camps, indeed, on the Holocaust itself. Leaving aside Aleksander Ford’s 1945 Polish film Majdanek: Cemetery of Europe – shot directly after the Majdanek camp was liberated by the Allies – Night and Fog may well be the first documentary film on the Nazi camps, though a few feature films made earlier had dealt with camp inmates, and Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946) had incorporated some camp footage.

Also read: Why a 1963 Holocaust Play Raked up a Storm for the Vatican

Perhaps the word ‘documentary’ itself is inadequate here. For Resnais was not concerned only, or even primarily, with the physical realty of a Nazi camp, with what it looked like or how it transacted its lethal everyday business.  He  foregrounds the weltanschauung that formed the conceptual axes of the camps. He uncovers the very heart of the Nazi way of life and traces the veins and arteries that led from that heart to the many limbs of the monster that was the death camp.

And he also does what few films – documentary or feature – have ever attempted to do: he examines and exposes the venal links that tied German industry to the Nazi killing machine. Night and Fog clearly suggests that quite a few German industrial giants (Krupp, Heinkel, I.G.Farben, Siemens, and others) took great interest in and indeed funded some of the grisly stuff that went on in the shadowy camp ‘laboratories’ under the name of ‘medical research’, hoping to industrially produce fertilisers, soap, combs and ‘textiles’  from out of human bones, hair and other bodily remains. (There is even a hint that these industry conglomerates were busy cutting deals with camp leaderships to ‘buy up’ prisoner groups as indentured labour.)

For a 32-year-old filmmaker with precious little by way of an established reputation yet, Night and Fog was a truly astonishing effort.

‘Human apparitions?’ A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

And to think that Resnais very nearly passed up the opportunity to make the film, when France’s Committee of the History of the Second World War commissioned him to cinematically memorialise the Nazi concentration camps! He hesitated because he felt that such a film needed to be made by someone who had experienced the camps first-hand. But the producer, the legendary Anatole Dauman, insisted, suggesting that they use the poet Jean Cayrol – who had spent two years at the Mauthausen-Gusen camp for his association with the Resistance – to write the script. Resnais agreed, but he also wanted an original musical score to be written by Hans Eisler, one of Brecht’s great collaborators. This would, of course, add considerably to the cost of producing the film, for the film’s sponsors, the Committee of History.., had  envisaged using a soundtrack based on a popular camp song instead.

Also read: ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’: The Hell-Gates of Dachau

But Dauman, keen to get Resnais on board, gave the go-ahead, and a memorable collaboration between three virtuoso artistes then came into play. The voice-over was entrusted to the French actor Michel Bouquet, who, at Resnais’s instance, kept his distance from the affected and ‘authoritative’ tone typical of the standard documentary, and delivered his lines in a dry, matter-of-fact tone throughout. Only in the film’s last half-minute, in its coda, does Bouquet’s voice shed its tonelessness when he asks the viewer: Are you sure this will not happen again?

‘Survivors: Will life know them again?’ A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

In his film, in a major departure from convention, Resnais altogether dispensed with interviews and talking heads, usually considered integral to documentary representation, relying instead on archival footage, other visuals and the commentary. (Shoah, by contrast, is taken up entirely with interviews and encounters with reluctant former camp officials, and some visits to the camp sites, eschewing use of all archival footage.)

In a brilliant stylistic innovation, he brought together contemporary (1955) colour footage of the abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek camp sites and their surroundings, and archival black-and-white footage of the camps when they were functional. He also added a short clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will (1935) on the 1934 Nuremburg convention of the Nazi Party.

Also Read: Reading the History of Nazi Germany as a Cautionary Tale for Today

The repeated, adroit intercutting of the two streams of footage achieves several fascinating results.

A quiet, serene countryside on a sunny autumn day seen in the contemporary colour footage rapidly makes way for ghastly archival scenes: prisoners freshly arrived at the camps being segregated, stripped of all their belongings; their clothes, before they are put through the gas chambers, their lifeless bodies to be later incinerated at the camp ‘ovens’ or plain shovelled into open pits. The contrast in mood between the two sets of visuals could not have been starker: one peaceful and contemplative, the other, petrifying, benumbed. In the colour segments, the camera moves unhurriedly via steady, tracking shots, while the momentum picks up once we drift into the archival portions, with the picture frames now coming thick and fast, one piling on top of the next, often at several times the speed of the colour frames.

A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

The tempo slackens again as Night and Fog retraces its steps to the contemporary visuals, as it does several times over the length of the film, moving back and forth between 1955 and the pre-1945 years. In all, this cross-over happens six times, with the prelude and the coda having been shot entirely in colour while five roughly chronological segments that populate the film’s middle comprise predominantly archival, black-and-white, footage. This contrapuntal editing adds enormously to the tautness of the film’s structure. Resnais, let’s recall, had begun his career in film editing.

Both the soundover and Eisler’s music score also work in counterpoint to the film’s visuals. As the voiceover commentates on stomach-turning footage, such as that of mounds of women’s hair (shorn off their heads before they are gassed), or of horribly disfigured, rotting corpses, many with their eyes gouged out, Bouquet’s voice takes on a measured, almost nonchalant, tone. A building housing an incinerator looks, Bouquet tells us, ‘picture-postcard-like’, and tourists love ‘to have their photos taken in front of it’. The background score remains enigmatic and counterintuitive throughout. Rather than pairing off a revolting visual with swelling violins or sombre cellos so as to provide an emotional release, Eisler “creates a Brechtian remove from the images” with a haunting, meditative, and often dissonant flute or clarinet. At times, the soundtrack dies on the visuals, like when the camera probes the walls and ceiling of the gas-chamber lacerated by the finger-nails of the dying as they thrashed about violently. 

A still from Alain Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’.

Some critics have faulted Resnais for ‘neglecting to stress’ the Jewish focus of the death camps by taking a more ‘universalist’ approach to the tragedy. The truth, though, is this: Resnais’s endeavour was to encapsulate the essential barbarity, utter inhumanity of the world-view that spawned the Nazi camps. Night and Fog repeatedly shows prisoners’ clothes emblazoned with the Star of David; it mentions ‘Stern, a Jewish student from Amsterdam’ as having lived his life for years, little knowing ‘a place (in a death camp) awaits him a thousand miles away’. This, even as Resnais shows other prisoner groups, too, notably political (Resistance) prisoners, living through and dying in the living hell that the camps were. Let’s remember that Resnais was a Frenchman commissioned by the History Committee of France to make a film on the camps, and not one on the Holocaust specifically. And as a Paris Left Bank intellectual-activist, he knew well some Resistance fighters who had disappeared into the black hole of Nazi camps.

This is where the film’s title – Night and Fog Nacht und Nebel in German – comes in.

Indeed, ‘Nacht und Nebel’ was the name of the deadly decree that Hitler got Wilhelm Keitel to sign off on in December, 1941 pointedly sanctioning the forced disappearance and liquidation of political resisters to Nazism. Wagner, in his 1869 drama Das Rheingold, is believed to have popularised the expression ‘nacht und nebel’, and, as a great Wagner aficionado, Hitler may have picked up the name from that work.

Let’s recall, at the end, the words of ineffable beauty with which Jean Cayrol opened his script for the film:

A peaceful landscape

An ordinary field with flights of crows, harvests, grass fires.

An ordinary road where cars and peasants and lovers pass.

An ordinary village for vacationers – with a marketplace and a steeple –

Can lead all too easily to a concentration camp.

Let’s not make the mistake of forgetting this: that even the most ordinary of roads can lead to a concentration camp, so we had better watch where we are headed.

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.